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LAist Interview: Jim and Michelle of Atomic Ranch

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Three years ago, Jim Brown and his wife Michelle Gringeri-Brown decided their love of mid-century ranch homes was too much to keep to themselves. With years of experience in publishing, they founded Atomic Ranch, a glossy, independent magazine that's as gorgeously photographed as the high-end home and design magazines from New York. But Atomic Ranch is from South Pasadena, and instead of focusing on "starchitect" homes features houses that are just as striking without the name brand designers. And rather than writing in the reverent whisper of a museum, the magazine is lighthearted and fun — a bedroom in the latest issue is described as "ginormous." The first Atomic Ranch coffee table book is due out this fall.

Age and occupation
Jim Brown: I'm 55 and have been a freelance photographer for 10 years. I'm now the publisher/photographer at Atomic Ranch. Spent 17 years at Petersen Publishing in the Photo Dept.
Michelle Gringeri-Brown: 53; Atomic Ranch editor

Home town:
Jim: Los Angeles.
Michelle: I grew up in Sierra Madre, which still has no traffic signals

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How long have you lived in LA, and where? What's your current LA neighborhood?
Jim: All my life; born and raised. Grew up in South Central and moved to Westchester/Playa del Rey for high school.
Michelle: Except for a year each in Minnesota and Massachusetts, all my life. We live in South Pasadena.

What made you decide to found Atomic Ranch magazine?
Jim: Michelle and I had this realization that there was a gap in the magazine racks; no one was addressing (at least on a consistent basis) the needs or community of modest midcentury housing at a national level.

Michelle: The millions of people who live in ranch houses needed a resource for renovating, furnishing and landscaping their homes. We decided to focus on "regular" houses instead of starchitect designed homes like the Case Study series that are covered ably by other titles. We wanted to help start a club, in effect, for homeowners who love their ranch houses and want to read about what like-minded people have done to their places.

Define "atomic ranch."
Jim: It's a playful juxtaposition, like "supersonic oatmeal." Atomic ranches were/are forward thinking, affordable midcentury homes. It's also our magazine — unpretentious, slightly funny, respectful of home owners and the emotions that homes engender.

Michelle: A 1948-1970s ranch house, both Modernist designs such as Eichlers and Alexanders, as well as traditional clapboard, brick and stucco houses. Ranches are primarily single story, but also include split-levels and are know as ramblers, ranchers and traditionals in various parts of the US. They often have an open floor plan with a combined living, dining and kitchen area, and large expanses of glass on the rear facade.

How do you find the homes you feature?
Michelle: Primarily word of mouth and e-mail submissions from readers.
Jim: Initially through Lotta Living; now owners seem to find us through e-mailed scouting shots. Doug Kramer, a realtor in Long Beach, turned us on to a bunch of great Cliff May Ranchos that all eventually made it into the magazine.

Tell us about the upcoming Atomic Ranch coffee table book.
Jim: We traveled to Houston, Denver, San Jose, Sacramento, and Portland, Oregon and found homes and homeowners that were similar to what we've been showing in the regular magazine, while still reflecting their own regional flavor. We have over 34 primary homes featured. It will be a 190 page, full color book printed by Gibbs Smith, due out in Fall 2006; text by Michelle, photos by me. Michelle and I have both been in the magazine business for many years, but doing a book has been a period of adjustment for us. I thought we'd be able to cover in super depth every home, but instead it's going to be a great primer on the basic question "what the heck is a ranch?"

Michelle: Gibbs Smith, Publisher is releasing our book in September 2006. We show great examples of both virtually original time capsules and appropriately remodeled contemporary interiors. Other chapters address landscaping the midcentury home, incorporating collectibles and neighborhood preservation. The emphasis is, again, on affordable middle-class tract and custom homes whose owners have done much of the work themselves.

Have you ever approached someone about including their home and had them say no?
Jim: No! People have kept us on hold while their house has been renovated, but everyone has been incredibly welcoming and cooperative. One couple even painted the front of their house for us.
Michelle: In Southern California, a few people have confused editorial coverage with location usage and asked if we pay a rental fee.

What's the hardest thing about running an independent magazine?
Jim: The work never ends; it never leaves my brain.
Michelle: Competing with corporate-run magazines with deep pockets.

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Have you learned anything about the magazine business since you started?
Michelle: We both worked in publishing previous to launching Atomic Ranch, but in the creative, not business side. The learning curve was huge.
Jim: Postal rules, national distribution strategies, advertising practices, free lancers, public relations, dealing with the press — it all seemed very daunting at first, but now it's becoming a bit familiar. You know it's going to be tough and you're scared sleepless when you start, but put two hands on the wheel and try to keep it in the middle of the road.

What's it like being a couple and working together on the magazine?
Michelle: Invigorating. We were married for 25 years before launching the magazine and it has been a wonderful experience to invent a new business together. As an editor and a photographer, our talents complement each other.
Jim: We work to a common goal. It gives us something to talk about.

Is Southern California the best place to find mid-century ranch homes?
Jim: It seems that so much starts in California and Southern California in particular, although I may just be myopic since this is where I live. But this was the template of the post war building boom, and the climate is so favorable to the relaxed living that is essential to ranch homes.

Michelle: It has a very strong concentration of midcenturies within two hours of Los Angeles. Cliff Mays in Long Beach, Eichlers in Orange and Thousand Oaks, Alexanders in Palm Springs, and dozens of traditional ranch neighborhoods like Torrance, Pasadena's Hastings Ranch, Arcadia, Glendale, Anaheim make it fertile ground for us. But we also strive to include homes from all across the country, as well as in Canada, as our readership is international.

What's your favorite ranch house in LA?
Michelle: I love all of our ranch children equally. ;)
Jim: There are so many; that's a hard question. I love Eichlers for their minimalism and conceptual style, Cliff May California ranches are both familiar and forward thinking, and the unsung builders/architects of the 1950s and '60s did some great individual homes. I always link the home to the personality of the owners and some are, shall we say, more pleasant that others.

What is/are your favorite book/CD/movie/TV show about LA?
Jim: Chinatown
Michelle: "Entourage."

Describe your best LA dining experience.
Michelle: An everyday lunch at Busters in South Pasadena
Jim: Back when I worked for Mr. Petersen, I was covering the annual Safari club dinner at Scandia Restaurant and the menu was all wild game. I was served like everyone else and it was pretty magical. Good wine, exotic food, interesting people.

You haven't really lived in LA until:
Jim: You catch the Rose Parade floats coming up Fair Oaks Blvd. at midnight New Year's Eve, on their way to staging on Orange Grove. They come up silently, out of the dark, 5 or 10 in a row. You can walk right up to them and see the incredible detail and inventiveness that goes into their assembly.
Michelle: Someone asks you if you're working on a script.

What is your LA pet peeve?
Jim: People who think there is nothing on the East side of town.
Michelle: Aggressive drivers.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
Michelle: Oddly ... downtown LA.
Jim: The Coliseum; my folks had two parking lots on 39th Street and we'd work the Dodger and Ram games. To me, that's where all parts of LA came together; the high and low, East and West.

It's 9:30pm on a Thursday. Where are you, and where are you going?
Jim: I'm getting ready for bed! It's a major accomplishment when I watch "ER" live.
Michelle: I'm asleep on the couch.

Where do you want to be when the big one hits?
Jim: In my house. I've got two trash barrels full of emergency supplies in our garage and I'll pitch a tent in the back yard.
Michelle: Or Portland, Oregon.